By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Content Agency
The royalty didn’t wave, much less acknowledge us.
That was probably a good thing as we’re watching the queens, princes and princesses of the jungle — two lionesses and two yearling cubs — walking within a few feet of our vehicle without paying us the slightest attention. It seemed they had more important things on their minds, like getting to the nearest watering hole after polishing off a meal. “The lions are the best,” said Jack Frater, 13, who is from Cape Town, South Africa.
We were at the vast (some 185,000 acres) malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa on the second leg of a South Africa trip, arranged by Abercrombie & Kent, which immersed us in African history (the sacrifices made by Nelson Mandela in his years of incarceration at Robben Island off the cost of Cape Town), ongoing philanthropy projects in an impoverished village designed to empower women, the famous winelands (reminiscent of Napa and Sonoma counties, but with more options for families) and of course the amazing wildlife. (More in future columns and on my website.)
The Madikwe Game Reserve borders Botswana to the north and is home to the famous “Big Five.” Before breakfast one morning, we’d seen four of them — lions, elephants, Cape buffalo and white rhino. The leopard, however, was elusive as we crossed the bush in our 4-by-4 off-road vehicles.
“Like Kruger National Park, but without the crowds,” crowed Dylan Mariner, one of the Sanctuary Makanyane Safari Lodge guides, who explained that only three vehicles at a time are allowed to surround the animals. Mariner has been a guide for first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters and first lady Laura Bush and her daughters.
There are more than 30 other lodges in the vast preserve, but only eight thatched-roof suites with glass-paneled bedrooms overlooking the Marico River. From our window, we spotted a large bull elephant wading chest deep in the water — in the heat of the afternoon. Wow!
After we’d arrived by small plane amid a torrential downpour, we went out for an early evening game drive with our enthusiastic ranger guide, Reuben Johann Grimsell, and saw two cheetahs, the park has six. “It never gets old,” Grimsell said. “They might be the same animals, but they always are doing something different.”
The cheetah were among the animals reintroduced to the park as part of Operation Phoenix, the largest translocation of wildlife ever undertaken, including entire breeding herds of African elephant, Cape buffalo, black-and-white rhino, along with various species of antelope, all historically found here.
The Sanctuary Makanyane gets its name from the rare African wild dog, which was also reintroduced, bringing the large mammal population to more than 10,000 with more than 60 animal species and over 350 bird species.
We saw birds everywhere we looked — egrets and grey heron, the distinctive white-faced whistling ducks and knob-billed ducks, the tiny turtle dove, the pale chanting goshawk with its black-and-white wings, the helmeted guinea fowl with its distinctive blue head, the vereaux eagle-owl with its pink eyelids and the southern yellow-billed hornbill (also known as the “flying banana”) with its big yellow beak.
We saw mother and baby impala just a few days old, elephant crossing the road right in front of us, blue wildebeest and white rhino — so named because they have a wide white lip — grazing in the grass, and baby zebra and elephants with their mamas.
Sadly, these animals are the target of poachers. Some believe rhino horn to be an aphrodisiac and one horn can fetch nearly $200,000, making poaching lucrative. The five-year prison sentence for getting caught isn’t enough to deter them, Grimsell said.
We were on the second leg of a South Africa trip, arranged by Abercrombie & Kent, that immersed us in African history (the sacrifices made by Nelson Mandela in his years of incarceration at Robben Island off the cost of Cape Town), ongoing philanthropy projects in an impoverished village designed to empower women, the famous winelands (reminiscent of Napa and Sonoma counties, but with more options for families) and of course the amazing wildlife. (More in future columns and on my website.)
According to Virtuoso, the large international consortium of travel agents, South Africa is a top pick for travelers because it offers such diverse experiences. The dollar is also very strong against the South African rand, making a visit, once you get here, affordable. (Look for flight deals on British Airways.)
But for Jack Frater and his mom, Jo, this visit is more than wildlife, amazing as it is. Jo Frater explained that her husband and Jack’s dad, died suddenly at age 41 when Jack was an infant and his older sisters were just two and three. James Frater had loved this place, she said, and they had visited many times.
That’s why two years after he died, she scattered his ashes in one of his favorite spots here, promising to bring each of her three children here when they turned 13. Jack is the youngest; His middle sister opted for a stay at the Cape Town One&Only instead. “I wasn’t going to force her,” Jo Frater said, “maybe in the future.”
Jack, meanwhile, is in his element — engaging in a dung spitting contest with Grimsell, checking out the so-called “Toothpick Tree” (the Common Quarry), which can be a natural toothbrush in the bush and the Toilet Paper Tree (the Weeping Wattle) whose smooth leaves will do in a pinch. He likes the early morning hot chocolate and “sundowner” snacks and soft drink in the bush, the pool at the lodge and all of the tasty eats — everything from grilled ostrich to Kudu filet to all kinds of tasty pastries. “I didn’t think I’d reach heaven so young,” he told his mom when he first saw their deluxe cottage with its outdoor shower.
And then there were the lions. It was just before sunset and we watched as one of the lionesses polished off the rest of the wildebeest. Afterward, we watched the lions walk within a few feet of our vehicle on their way to the nearest watering hole. We doubled back to see our first black-backed jackals and then spotted hyena munching on the lions’ leftovers.
“The right place at the right time,” agreed Grimsell. “It’s very rare to see this.”
“So exciting,” added Jack. Yes, you have to get up very early. Yes, it can get boring looking for the animals, and they may be snoozing when you find them.
But then there is a one-for-the-memory-books experience — an afternoon, Jack’s mom hopes, that will help him connect to the dad he never knew.
© 2019 EILEEN OGINTZ
DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.